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Will New York City Become Detroit?

Question: What lessons did you learn in developing Mexico City that could apply to U.S. cities?

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Juan Enriquez: So, there are few jobs in the world that are more fun than being the head of Urban Development for a great and thriving city. I mean, it is just – cities are magical things. You know the energy in them. You have to walk the streets in any borough here and you can see between what was in this city in the 1970’s and where it is today and how much more energy there is and how much more just sheer; “We’re going to get through it. We’re going to do it. We’re going to build it.” I mean, it’s really neat.

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When that fails, when you get a Detroit, when the average price of a house in Detroit last year was about $7,000 for houses sold. There’s the opposite effect. So, being the head of and urban development corporation for a city like Mexico City is a wonderful job because you get to build a National Children’s Museum, the National Zoo, the National Auditorium, a Tech City of 400,000 people. It’s a nifty place to sit.

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It’s much harder to do that job today because drugs and insecurity have become so prevalent, because other countries have moved so far ahead in technology and we haven’t changed the education system. Because Mexico bet on the United States for about 90% of our exports while Brazil and other diversified into Asia and into Europe. And frankly, we haven’t been able to generate the jobs that keep people at work in the U.S. 

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The interesting that’s happening is you’re beginning to get these – it’s not a flat world, it’s a world that, to quote Richard Florida, “is getting very spiky.” There are certain zip codes that generate a disproportionate share of patents, of startups, of wealth, of jobs. And it’s really important if other parts of the country are going to want to create these tech centers. Want to create these life science cities, these digital cities. That they begin to understand what the ecosystem looks like, what the different pieces that you put together will look like? What has to happen in that city, because it isn’t, you build a building, it isn’t you, put some money behind venture. There is a massive ecosystem that has to get built that looks like a biosphere. And the various parts of that biosphere better be there.

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Question: How do you predict New York City will change in the next few decades?

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Juan Enriquez: New York City is a fascinating place because it’s very good at using the energy in attracting some of the best and the brightest from everywhere. The housing crisis may not be the worst thing that’s happened to New York City because it was becoming impossible for some of the young doctors, for some of the young artists, for some of the people that make the city so special to be able to live here.

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One of the lessons that I hope people will take out of this is the extreme dependence simply on the financial sector is really dangerous. And it can begin to look like Detroit because, as you recall in the 1960’s, the dominant technology leaders, business people on the planet lived in Detroit.

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But if you depend on a single industry, if you don’t continuously upgrade it, if that industry is not producing real wealth, if it’s simply shuffling paper from here to here in a very efficient manner sometimes, that’s not enough and that’s not where you begin to get the rest of your jobs. So, it is important that New York, in addition to its fashion, and finance, and tourism, and communications infrastructure, also begin developing venture infrastructure that’s for real.

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You don’t see this in a number of startups in New York City, in Manhattan certainly not and in the boroughs, even though you have the basic input which is these extraordinary brains at Columbia, at Rockefeller, at City University of New York, at NYU. You have a core of these brains that should be generating startups in robotics, startups in nanotechnologies, and startups in life science. You don’t see the same type of energy that you’re seeing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or that you’re seeing in San Diego, or that you’re seeing in parts of Silicon Valley. And this overwhelming dominance of a financial sector. If that gets reinforced post this crisis, it’s dangerous for New York, and if there isn’t some sort of regulation on this financial system, it’s also dangerous for the U.S. and the world.

Recorded on November 9, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

The former CEO of Mexico City’s Urban Development Corporation feels a tremendous energy in modern New York. But an over-reliance on the financial industry, he warns, will leave it vulnerable to long-term collapse.

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